The Catholic Church vs. the D.C. Metro: A Christmas Story

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Here is a Christmas story I’d prefer not to have to share.

On December 6th, the day before St. Nicholas’s feast day, the Archdiocese of Washington sat in federal court arguing for an emergency injunction that would require the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) to run our Christmas ad campaign on the backs of their buses. It’s called “Find the Perfect Gift.” The ad only hints at the faith message the archdiocese is sharing. 

The visitor to our website is greeted with a number of options: a list of Christmas Mass times, videos to learn about other faiths’ Christmas traditions, or how to make a family Advent wreath. There are resources to volunteer to help others during the season. There are messages explaining how the season is about the birth of the Christ Child, and what it means for humanity. In other words, it’s what one might expect from any faith-based organization seeking to share a Christmas message.

WMATA turned down the ad, which has no religious imagery, because its advertising guidelines bar religious advertising. But during my discussions with the ad sales folks at WMATA they indicated that if there was a way we could make the ads more “commercial” they might be able to run them. By “commercial” they meant selling something, say if the Catholic Church were selling tickets to a concert or a Mass. But the church doesn’t do that, so there wasn’t really a way to change the ad.

WMATA went on to say that it turned down our ad because while the ad itself was not very religious, our website is. But when the archdiocese showed Christmas advertising that WMATA did accept — from the Salvation Army and a local Christian radio station — things got a bit more complicated. The Salvation Army is a well-known Christian organization, whose bus ads highlight Christmas red kettles. But when you go to the Salvation Army website, one finds faith-based messaging similar to that of the Catholic Church. “The Salvation Army is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God,” the website proclaims.

As for the Christian radio station, its website is a great resource. Visitors can sign up for a prayer group, learn more about Christmas services, and how to help others in the community — just like our website. 

In short, the review process undertaken by WMATA and its agents is inconsistent. Why were the Catholic Church’s ads unworthy of space on public buses while similar ads from other religious groups were permitted? WMATA seemed to confirm the inconsistency in its court filings, which argued that there were two sides to Christmas: the “secular half” and the “religious half.” But even here, things are murky.

This year, for example, Macy’s Christmas advertising includes the same phrase — “Find the Perfect Gift” — that the archdiocese has used for years. So, under WMATA’s rules, Macy’s secular slogan for buying gifts can run, but our religious slogan highlighting the very reason we celebrate “secular” Christmas in the first place —the birthday of Jesus Christ — cannot. 

Unlike in the movie “A Christmas Story,” the Archdiocese of Washington doesn’t think it needs to issue secret decoder pins to share its message with the public. We don’t believe that we should have to double-dog or triple-dog dare WMATA or other government institutions with court cases to defend our constitutionally protected freedom to practice or express our faith in the public square. We also don’t believe that the celebration of the birth of Jesus — or, more broadly, the Catholic faith — should be treated as an intrusion, like some ugly “leg lamp” marring an otherwise beautiful secular Christmas tableau.

Have we as a society reached the point where the only acceptable message during the holidays is the commercialized Christmas message? Where a message of hope and offers of help for our fellow man are now deemed too controversial or too “religious” to be acceptable in public view? The Archdiocese of Washington believes that there is no “secular half” or “religious half” of Christmas — or any other religious holiday, for that matter. There is simply Christmas, a season in which fundamental, universal sentiments such as joy, hope, and love and values such as faith and charity, are inextricably bound to our culture; they cannot and should not be divided. 

For those of us that view Christmas in its totality, the joy and charity of the season is a gift we wish to share in the public square with all of our neighbors regardless of race or creed or the size of their tree or the quality of their holiday light displays. We view this as a calling, but also as a right worth defending and protecting. That is why we are sharing some of our Christmas spirit in federal court. Oh, and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Ed McFadden is the Secretary for Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.

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